Many of the administration's highest-profile leaks have concerned operations that had already been successfully carried out, like the bin Laden raid or the U.S. role in creating the Stuxnet computer virus that temporarily slowed Iran's nuclear program. The current situation is arguably riskier for the U.S. because the information being leaked concerns an operation that has yet to take place.
A White House official -- also speaking, ironically, under the condition of anonymity -- denied that the administration had been responsible for publicizing specifics about potential U.S. targets and insisted that it opposed the release of the information.
"The kinds of details you're talking about are not coming out with the approval of the White House," the official said. "I don't know who is talking about these things, but we want it to stop. Our intention is not to talk about the details of military operations the president has not decided upon."
The official also defended the administration's preemptive declaration that a U.S. strike wouldn't be designed to drive Assad from power. "Regime change is not U.S. policy in Syria," the official said. "We've made clear for many months that we think there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria and that a political solution is needed."
That message is hard to reconcile with the administration's tough talk about Assad. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that Assad "has long since forsaken any legitimacy that he might have to lead" and stressed that Syria's future "must be one that is without Assad in power." President Obama himself has been calling for Assad to step aside for more than a year.
Deptula said that he didn't know why the administration would call for Assad's ouster -- while simultaneously insisting that it wasn't going to try to use force to bring that ouster about.
"There are these trial balloons being floated about the strikes being limited and not about regime change," he said. "Well, wait a second. Didn't the president say Assad has got to go? How do you square that?"
The administration may have good reasons for trying to tread so narrow a line. Allies like Saudi Arabia have been privately pressing the administration to oust Assad for months, but the prospect of an American military intervention is so politically toxic throughout the region that Riyadh has pointedly refused to publicly endorse a U.S. strike. The Arab League has taken a similar position, and the administration could be trying to maintain support for a military intervention by making clear that it would be limited in both scope and duration. That message could also play well at home, where an overwhelming majority of the American public opposes U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war.
The approach also carries clear risks, however, most notably that Assad will interpret a small-scale American strike as a sign that he can continue to wage a brutal campaign against his own people without risking a Western attempt to force him from power.
"I'm not a big fan of the belief that you can send a message and have that be enough," Deptula said. "The leadership of Syria is responsible for this brand of armed conflict, and the leadership needs to feel like they're paying a price. If they don't, you won't see a change in behavior."